If you want to know what Georgia Tech University is doing to make their drones fly, you better have deep pockets. Georgia Tech is one of many public agencies that are asking for thousands of dollars in order to release document related to their research and testing of drones.
According to open government nonprofit organization MuckRock, which, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is compiling a "drone census" of public agencies that are using unmanned aerial vehicles, many agencies have been less than forthcoming with details of their drone use.
Since June 2012, groups have filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 375 different public agencies across the country pertaining to drones. Some of the requests have been fruitful: Documents uncovered by MuckRock revealed that Austin and San Francisco law enforcement agencies were considering purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles, and a FOIA request sent to the Georgia Tech police department showed that they planned on flying surveillance drones during football games.
But nearly a quarter of requests have gone unanswered, others have been rejected, and at least 16 public agencies have requested payment in return for the records.
Though Freedom of Information laws vary from state to state, for the most part, public organizations are allowed to charge for labor involved in tracking down records and a fee per photocopied page. The fee is often waived for groups or individuals, such as journalists or nonprofit groups, who contend that they are asking for the records as a public service.
In a blog post describing his experience with FOIA requests, MuckRock investigator Shawn Musgrave wrote that "a number of agencies demanded incredible fees for the release of drone documents."
Georgia Tech said it would take three months and cost $115,200 to release its drone documents. The University of North Dakota requested $7,751. Virginia Commonwealth University asked for $1,694. The U.S. Marine Corps asked for $714.
"While charging a fee for review, duplication and postage of public records is acceptable and to be expected in the age of budget cuts, agencies and their fee schedules should be held to a reasonable standard, particularly given the public interest served by transparency," Musgrave wrote.
Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, says such fees aren't uncommon.
"It happens all the time," he says. "I think the citing of exorbitant costs is an unfortunate ploy to make something go away."
Matt Nagel, a representative with Georgia Tech, declined to discuss the MuckRock FOIA request with U.S. News, but said the university deals with the requests "very frequently." In an email with MuckRock, Nagel "estimated that it [would] take approximately 20 people 3 months" to compile the university's drone records.
"[Georgia Tech] does a lot of research involving drones," he wrote. "To fulfill your request, researchers will need to go through all of their files to determine which files contain information about drone research. After these files are identified, qualified personnel must then go through each file to redact any proprietary, classified or export controlled information that is permitted to be redacted under the Act."
Bunting says that the sensitive nature of domestic drone use, which has raised public privacy concerns, might be one reason that organizations are reticent to cooperate with FOIA requests.
"What MuckRock is working on with the drone census is something that few people know about and the people who are developing drones have been just as secretive about them as our government has been with drone warfare," he says. "The cynic in me thinks these agencies are trying to make it difficult for the project."